The new Black Keys album is titled Turn Blue, but it might well be called How the Blues Turn. The group’s evolution over the last dozen years has proved to be a narrative of continual reinvention, of how to expand their sound while remaining true to the initial impulses that turned them into a band in the first place. And while the bedrock duality of Dan Auerbach’s guitars and Patrick Carney’s pound-for-pound drumming still provides the starting point for their songs, they’ve hardly locked themselves into a formula. Each album has its own reason for being, and none more expansive than this, their eighth full-length.
2011′s El Camino was built for the arenas. In some ways a more traditional rock record than the previous Brothers, it contained echoes of T. Rex and the Sweet, as well as the Billy Idol of “Rebel Yell” — all good reference points, but a step back from the adventurousness that characterized 2008′s Attack and Release. But Turn Blue, born of personal upheaval and a concomitant freeing sense of sonic possibility, once again spaces out their sound, no more apparent than in the near-seven minutes of “Weight of Love,” which opens the record. There’s lots of Neil Young-ish room for Auerbach to solo away, and the sense of experience and determination the Keys bring to the record is almost palpable.
I’ve always thought that the sudden emergence of drum-and-guitar duos around the turn of the millennium — from the White Stripes to even avant-garde flips of the coin like Hella — owed as much to the bare-bones approach of hip-hop as the more readily accessible mile-markers of garage rock (a notion made manifest in the Keys’ collaborative Blakroc, with rappers like Mos Def and Raekwon). In the second track, “In Time” — the debt becomes clear in the relentless groove that opens up near the end of the song, after Auerbach has unleashed his high tenor. You half expect an MC to enter for its final four bars. “Turn Blue” has a swampy feel, alligators and crocodiles subliminally swimming under the pulse of the bass. The chorus speaks of “hell below” — a touch of Curtis Mayfield with its soul uplift. Then it’s a dance party: “Fever” lights up the mirror ball and sends the album into hyperdrive. (I can’t wait to hear it some night as dawn approaches and the DJ segues it into New Order.)
If it seems like Turn Blue is card cutting through styles, that’s probably the point. The Keys have opened their own floodgates, and now can pick and choose among the many genres at their beckoning call. “Year in Review” tears off these signifiers like calendar pages, a constant progression of moods that brings out the anguish of the lyric’s confessions, culminating in a refrain that wouldn’t be out of place on an Electric Light Orchestra production. The coda is particularly entrancing, and I wouldn’t have minded if they’d just used it as a bridge to the next song. “Bullet in the Brain” belies its doom-laden title by being perhaps the mostly sweetly-sung on the album, at least until the chorus bears down and the guitar hook takes over the dialog.
“It’s Up to You Now” is hypnotic, partaking of Bo Diddley’s classic beat before descending into a sludge of distortion; a contrast to the strumming “Waiting on Words,” replete with guitar vibrato and heartfelt sentiments that probably reflect on the travails of the band’s romantic breakups, the emotional push-and-pulls of attachment and detachment.
“In Our Prime” is where the Black Keys understand themselves at this moment in time. The way Auerbach sings it is shot through with both retrospective nostalgia and the promise of the future. The song abruptly shifts sections, the organ solo notching up the sentiment to the point of heartbreak. Auerbach takes over and plays a wrenching excursion on his guitar that bleeds each note for maximum anguish and release. And then they loosen the cannons for the big-tent rollick that is “Gotta Get Away.”